Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Battle For Christmas Shows The Connection Between Economics And Mythology

Stephen Nissenbaum wrote a book called The Battle for Christmas. Here is what I said about in my paper "The Intersection of Economic Signals and Mythic Symbols"(Presented at the annual meetings of The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in July 1997, Montreal).(This paper will be published in 2007 in "Revista de Economia Institucional," a Spanish language journal in Columbia published by Universidad Externado de Colombia) (this will also be published in 2010 in Language and Politics Edited by John Joseph, published by Routledge):

"The intersection of signals and symbols is not confined to current events. Santa Claus, the symbol of giving at Christmas, is also an economic signal.3 In colonial America, Christmas was a rowdy, if not violent holiday. Members of the lower class would go "wassailing" and demand food and drink from the rich. Religious leaders tried to get citizens to attend church on Christmas, but failed. In fact, "[the] 'misrule' of Christmas mobs had become so widespread that it threatened civic life" (Woodward, 71). What made Christmas into the peaceful holiday of giving that we know today were the stories of "traditional" Dutch family Christmas gatherings by Washington Irving and others and the popularizing of the Santa Claus symbol in Clement Moore's poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas." This non-threatening symbol was acceptable to all classes. His pipe was short, like those of the working class. Soon Christmas evolved, with the help of newspaper editorials, into a home and children centered holiday. This, of course, meant buying gifts, bringing in the economic side of Santa. His image soon became used in stores and advertisements. "In the benign figure of Santa Claus, the commercialization of Christmas was hidden behind the most tender of parental emotions" (Ibid). Although he symbolizes giving, any store or ad or commercial using Santa was clearly trying to signal to parents that they should shop here or buy this toy because it was one their children would like."

Here are the descriptions at Amazon of the book:

"This scholarly analysis of our modern celebration of Christmas pulls together a thoroughly convincing case for the widely accepted notion that it is a 19th-century creation, indeed a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins. Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ's birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year's food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title."


"Christmas in America hasn't always been the benevolent, family-centered holiday we idealize. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony so feared the day's association with pagan winter solstice revels, replete with public drunkenness, licentiousness and violence, that they banned Christmas celebrations. In this ever-surprising work, Nissenbaum (Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America), a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, conducts a vivid historical tour of the holiday's social evolution. Nissenbaum maintains that not until the 1820s in New York City, among the mercantile Episcopalian Knickerbockers, was Christmas as we know it celebrated. Before Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore ("A Visit from St. Nicholas") popularized the genteel version, he explains, the holiday was more of a raucous festival and included demands for tribute from the wealthy by roaming bands of lower-class extortionists. Peppering his insights with analysis of period literature, art and journalism, Nissenbaum constructs his theory. Taming Christmas, he contends, was a way to contain the chaos of social dislocation in a developing consumer-capitalist culture. Later, under the influence of Unitarian writers, the Christmas season became a living object lesson in familial stability and charity, centering on the ideals of bourgeois childhood. From colonial New England, through 18th- and 19th-century New York's and Philadelphia's urban Yuletide contributions, to Christmas traditions in the antebellum South, Nissenbaum's excursion is fascinating, and will startle even those who thought they knew all there was to know about Christmas. Illustrations."

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